1983: Rea­gan, An­dropov, and a World on the Brink

The Week (US) - - 22 - By Tay­lor Down­ing

(Da Capo, $28) The world has more than once been lucky to es­cape an all-out nu­clear war, said The Economist. On Nov. 9, 1983—two decades af­ter the res­o­lu­tion of the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis—the U.S. and the Soviet Union once again blun­dered to the brink of mu­tual de­struc­tion when the So­vi­ets mis­in­ter­preted a NATO mil­i­tary ex­er­cise as a prepa­ra­tion for im­mi­nent nu­clear at­tack. As Tay­lor Down­ing’s “snap­pily told” ac­count of the 1983 in­ci­dent lays bare, the sec­ond close call was es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous be­cause the U.S. had no idea that the So­vi­ets had been fright­ened into ready­ing war planes for take­off. In 1962, by con­trast, “at least both sides knew the world was on the brink of catas­tro­phe.”

Down­ing’s closely re­ported book “reads like a thriller,” said Terry Har­tle in CSMon­i­tor.com. Soviet lead­ers were

paranoid that U.S. Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan aimed to launch a pre-emp­tive nu­clear strike, and in truth, Rea­gan had given them plenty to worry about. Af­ter as­sum­ing of­fice in 1981, he cham­pi­oned a nu­clear arms buildup while spar­ring ver­bally with Moscow. Af­ter sev­eral scares caused by U.S. Navy flight ma­neu­vers, the Soviet mil­i­tary shot down a Korean pas­sen­ger air­liner in Septem­ber 1983 and claimed it had been mis­taken for a spy plane. But the So­vi­ets knew the West was still out­raged when in early Novem­ber NATO launched Able Archer 83, the most re­al­is­tic war game ever seen. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Soviet ob­servers con­cluded that dooms­day had arrived.

“On the face of it, Down­ing’s book has a happy end­ing,” said Do­minic Sand­brook in The Times (U.K.). Able Archer con­cluded on Nov. 11 with­out trig­ger­ing a Soviet strike, and when Rea­gan dis­cov­ered how close the ex­er­cise had come to ini­ti­at­ing nu­clear war, he sought stronger diplo­matic ties and pur­sued dis­ar­ma­ment. “Yet there is a chill­ing les­son here, too.” In 1983, stu­pid­ity and mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion nearly caused an Ar­maged­don scenario, and the world re­lied on the de­ci­sions of just a hand­ful of peo­ple, in­clud­ing Rea­gan, to avert catas­tro­phe. Might we not be so lucky the next time?

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